The stock market boomed after the much awaited domestic debt restructuring programme (DDR), but the national economy continues to be in deep trouble. It does not seem to have the productive capacity and the general population does not have the purchasing power to lift itself out of the doldrums. Even those at the top end of the production chain, the owners of factories, are lamenting the lack of consumer demand for their goods and services. People do not have the money to purchase their output. Examples are given of three lorries per day leaving the factory whereas 60 went out prior to the economic collapse. Or of factories that have laid off 50 of their 200 employees. The newspaper delivery man said that the sale of the state-owned newspapers by him has slumped. He explained that offices used to buy them and said 15 of the 18 offices he distributed them to in the neigbourhood had closed.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe notched up another achievement when parliament ratified the Domestic Debt Restructuring (DDR) programme with a majority of 60 votes with 122 members voting for and 62 against with 40 abstentions. Parliamentarians who would need to think about their re-election prospects would have been reluctant to vote for a programme that imposes more burdens on an already burdened population. But the president stood his ground, and by his vision of the country’s economic future, and the rest of the government acquiesced. The president has been successful in steering the ship of state into calmer waters. He is also setting in place laws like the proposed Anti Terrorism Act, the Broadcasting Authority Bill and the anticipated NGO Act which could be used in a sophisticated way to silence critics and to immobilize them.
The ongoing session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva is proof enough that the international quest for justice and accountability in Sri Lanka is continuing. UN Human Rights High Commissioner Volker Turk, who presented the annual report, noted that “In Sri Lanka, although the government has regrettably rejected aspects of the Council’s resolutions related to accountability, it has continued to engage with our presence on the ground. Sri Lanka has received a dozen visits by mandate holders in the past decade and I encourage the authorities to implement their recommendations.” The change in the presidency from Gotabaya Rajapaksa to Ranil Wickremesinghe has made no difference to the expectations of the international community and to the demands placed on the government.
The present stability in the country is taken as an indication that the situation is improving. The law and order, drop in inflation, and absence of visible shortages, such as in front of petrol stations, signifies a vast change as compared to the situation a year ago. But shortages continue, an example being “Jeevanee” (oral rehydration salt drink) which is necessary for those who are undergoing medical treatment for illnesses such as dengue or doing sports. The shortage of Jeevanee is said to be due to issues in importing raw materials needed to produce it locally. More expensive substitutes are available at more than double the price. Those who are able to make ends meet, and have a bird’s eye view of the situation, are generally appreciative of the government’s success in ensuring normalcy in the country.
The arrest of parliamentarian and leader of the Tamil National People’s Front Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam would be yet another incident that feeds into the sense of unequal treatment of individuals and communities in the country. It also highlights two areas of particular concern. The first is the high level of surveillance that continues in the former war zones of the north and east. The visitors to those parts of the country would not fail to see the large presence of uniformed personnel in these two provinces, even at tourist sites. They remain as a visible reminder of the unsettled and violent conditions that prevailed since the late 1970s and which ended in May 2009. The failure on the part of the country to overcome the legacy of its violent past despite the passage of 14 eventful years is epitomized by the large spending still taking place on the security forces even in the midst of the general economic collapse.
The saying “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is often attributed to the founders of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, among many others, though Lord Denning in The Road to Justice (1988) stated that the phrase originated in a statement of Irish orator John Philpot Curran in 1790. The phrase is often used to emphasize the importance of being vigilant in protecting one’s rights and freedoms. Recent controversies involving religion are giving a warning signal. Ethnic and religious identity are two powerful concepts by which people may be mobilized the world over. This is a phenomenon that seemed to have subsided in Western Europe due to centuries of secular practices in which the state was made secular and neutral between ethnicities and religions, but is rising again.
With less than a year and half to the presidential elections, President Ranil Wickremesinghe has a tight deadline to meet if he is to attain his aspirations for the country. His visit last week to Japan where he sought to renew ties which had made it Sri Lanka’s largest aid donor for decades, was reported to be highly successful. During his visit, the president had apologized to the Japanese government leaders regarding the cancellation of the Light Rail Transit project which was subsequently delivered by Japan to Bangladesh. The completion of the elevated railroad would have significantly reduced Colombo’s traffic jams. The disastrous mistake the previous government made in crudely cancelling the project unilaterally and without rational reason lost Sri Lanka the goodwill of Japan which will not be easy to get back. Getting Japan back as a donor partner would be a great boon. Overcoming the serious economic crisis that besets the country and its people would require a massive infusion of foreign assistance if the period of recovery is to be kept short and not prolonged indefinitely.
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s remarks on May 18 that “Canada will not stop advocating for the rights of the victims and survivors of this conflict, as well as for all in Sri Lanka who continue to face hardship,” in the context of the recognition of May 18 as “Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day” has met with a strong rebuttal from the Sri Lankan government. It is tragic that 14 years after the end of the war, and with a president as internationalist and liberal as Ranil Wickremesinghe at the helm, that Sri Lanka should be losing ground internationally and its embassies abroad are unable to stem the tide because there is no political progress on the issue of national reconciliation at home. This is particularly tragic as Sri Lanka, after its economic collapse, needs international support more than ever.
The discussions that President Ranil Wickremesinghe has commenced with the Tamil parties in the north and east are being seen as a possible precursor to elections in those two provinces. The talks are scheduled over three days. The president has an interest in holding some form of elections as the government’s moral legitimacy has been undermined by its refusal to conduct the local government elections on schedule. The president would be conscious that the manner of his election, by parliament and not by the people, creates an issue of moral legitimacy that needs to be addressed. The grounds for the repeated postponement of local government elections, that the money is either unavailable or better spent elsewhere, is clearly unacceptable from a democratic or rule of law perspective. Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa’s offer to pass a constitutional amendment to have early presidential elections reflects this sentiment.
The government has withdrawn its draft Anti-Terrorism law (ATA), but only temporarily. Minister of Justice Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe has said that he has decided to provide more time for proposals for reform to be submitted to it. There have been a very large number of statements and protests made against the draft law from a wide swathe of society including the Bar Association, civil society organisations, trade unions and highest ranking religious clergy. The main cause of opposition to it has been its sweeping over-breadth which will enable the government to suppress public protests that are recognised as being democratic and legitimate the world over. When the reality of economic restructuring caused by the economic collapse strikes its likely targets who are the middle and working classes the agitation against the government is bound to grow. It appears that the government is preparing its security arsenal to meet the exigencies of public protests. The ATA will be one of its chief weapons.